Plasma is out, LED is in, and Energy Usage is Down
What does the digital revolution mean for the way we view TV?
Beyond TV Sets
A growing number of people in the UK are moving away from the traditional television set, especially those born between the early 1980s and the early 2000s, who are popularly known as ‘millennials’.
Instead a screen or projector is connected to a computer and programmes are watched via on-demand services such as BBC iPlayer, Netflix, Apple TV, Google Chromecast and Amazon Fire. Indeed, in 2014, the number of homes claiming not to own a television at all increased by 500,000 to 1.6 million.
If TV viewing activities really were becoming consolidated in fewer devices, this reduced consumption would be good news for the environment. But (and it’s a big but) any gains may well be tempered by increased hours of usage and therefore greater energy consumption. And, if everyone in a household has their own tablet, smartphone or computer to watch TV on, then impacts may well increase.
Plasma is Dead
The biggest tech news since our last guide in 2009 is that plasma is dead. Panasonic stopped producing plasma screen TVs in 2013, swiftly followed the next year by Samsung. This is good news for the environment as plasma was the most power-hungry of screen types, using two to three times as much energy as an LCD (liquid crystal display) or LED (light emitting diode) screen.
Five years ago LCD TVs dominated the market, making up nearly two thirds of all TV sales. Since then they’ve been beaten into second place by LED TVs, whose market share in 2013 was over 83%. LED sets use a similar screen technology to LCD but are more energy efficient. Some have also claimed that Organic LED (OLED) sets are more energy efficient than LCD and LED TVs, although Which? found little difference (see our top 10 most energy efficient TVs opposite).
These developments in screen type are accompanied by an almost bewildering array of choices of picture resolution (HD, Ultra HD, 4K) and features (curved screen, smart TV, 3D, wifi etc.). Here at Ethical Consumer our main concerns are the materials used to create products, their energy efficiency during use and how they are dealt with as waste. Readers interested in learning more about screen resolution and features should consult technical guides such as Techradar and Cnet to learn about the different options.
The EU energy efficiency label
Televisions are becoming more energy efficient, helped in part by the introduction of the EU energy labelling scheme for televisions in 2010. At first TVs were rated using the basic A to G scale but this changed as the efficiency of the appliance improved. Currently TVs are rated A+ to F, which will shift to A++ to E in 2017 and then to A+++ to D in 2020.
With energy labels it is tempting to read the headline energy efficiency class, the A or A+ rating, and then look no further. But the devil is in the detail.
As well as overall energy efficiency, the EU energy label also shows the in-use power consumption in watts and the annual power consumption in kWh based on 4 hours’ usage per day. It also tells consumers whether the TV has a power button, enabling you to switch off the TV completely rather than leave it in ‘standby’ mode, which continues to use energy. According to the Energy Saving Trust, over 75% of people leave televisions and other devices on standby, mostly because it is more convenient.3 This wastes energy and adds £20-£30 to household bills each year.
It is also important to think about screen size and picture quality. As you might expect, the larger the screen the more energy required to power it. Similarly, high definition TVs have more pixels per square inch, which is more power intensive than a ‘standard density’ (SD) television.
Overall, the EU energy labelling system is of limited use when comparing TVs of different sizes and screen types if you just look at the energy efficiency rating, the A or A+. Under the scheme, a huge TV using 63 kWh annually receives a better energy efficiency rating than a much smaller TV using 23 kWh annually. Or two TVs of the same size may both fall under the A+ rating but they may not use the same amount of energy. This is both unfair and misleading for consumers. You need to look at the annual energy consumption figure, given in kWh/annum, to see which TV uses the least energy.
Top 10 TVs ranked by in-use energy consumption
While none of the major online retail sites for televisions (Co-operative Electrical, John Lewis, Curry’s/PC World, Tesco Direct, Amazon, Richer Sounds) allow models to be sorted by their energy efficiency rating, the independent energy efficiency website www.sust-it.net lists over 300 televisions in terms of their in-use and standby running costs per day and per year, and users can sort by screen size and type. The Energy Saving Trust’s comparison site, www.toptenuk.org, shows the best performers for energy efficiency within different size brackets only.
The Philips’ website gives the EU energy efficiency rating for its TVs but does not allow users to sort by this criterion.
Source: Sust-it.net January 2016. Sets rated by in-use energy consumption. All brands, all screen types and sizes, all screen resolutions.
In December 2014 the BBC reported that, despite increasing purchases of large TVs, computers, smartphones and tablets, the average person in the UK used 10% less electricity than in 2009 and that consumption of all energy was at its lowest in nearly 30 years. But the in-use energy efficiency of a television is of course only part of the ecological footprint of the device.
What would these figures look like if they included energy use involved in the manufacture of new electrical devices and the disposal of old ones? British consumers may trade in their power-hungry plasma TV for an LED model and feel good about saving money and energy, but these savings are at the expense of countries producing and disposing of electronic devices.
Embodied energy and wider environmental impact data for televisions is not easy to come by. According to the EU’s own catalogue there are no Ecolabel televisions available in the UK.
Other European countries operate ecolabel schemes of their own and some companies in our report have models certified under these schemes. Four of Philips’ Smart LED sets carry Germany’s Blue Angel label but none of them are available in the UK. The Nordic Ecolabel (Nordic Swan) certifies products available in Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland and Iceland, and nearly all of the TVs with this label are made by Samsung. Similarly, the US-based EPEAT scheme has certified 108 Samsung televisions but none are available in the UK.
Manufacturers themselves are oddly shy about highlighting such larger-scale eco-credentials of their products. LG, Sharp and Samsung have special webpages outlining in general terms that many of their products are ecolabel certified but it is remarkably difficult to ascertain exactly to which ones this applies.
Read our feature for ways to reduce your energy consumption of electrical goods.
Conflict minerals are a key issue in the electronics industry. For televisions Philips, Toshiba and Sony were the only companies to receive Ethical Consumer’s best rating for conflict minerals reporting (see table below).
They did so because they demonstrated a commitment to continue sourcing minerals originating from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). These companies were also members of various initiatives aimed at supporting the conflict-free minerals trade or financially supporting in-region mining initiatives, and they also required suppliers to adopt a robust conflict minerals policy. All three used recognised reporting templates to identify, assess, mitigate and respond to risks within their supply chains. Additionally, they had all committed to use 3TG minerals from smelters that had been audited and verified as conflict-free by the Conflict Free Smelter Program or an equivalent as they become available.
LG narrowly missed out on a ‘best’ rating because they did not state how they were conducting due diligence, nor did they give a clear indication about supplier expectations. Sharp and Panasonic also got a middle rating.
Samsung received a ‘worst’ rating due to the fact that its conflict minerals policy did not clearly articulate its continued support for sourcing 3TG minerals from the DRC. All the other companies received a ‘worst’ rating because they did not mention conflict minerals at all.
Read our feature: Conflict Minerals and Consumers for more information.
Another key issue in the electronics industry is the use of toxic chemicals, particularly polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and brominated flame retardants (BFRs), as they have a significant environmental impact after disposal.
For televisions, only Sony and Toshiba received our ‘best’ rating for toxics (see table above). In 2012 Toshiba set a goal of using substitute materials to replace PVC and BFR contained in products across a total of eighty product groups by 2015. Sony had a target of eliminating PVC and BFR from all of its products by March 2016, the end of its Green Management 2015 programme.
LG, Philips and Samsung received a ‘middle’ rating because, although they had plans to phase out PVC and BFR, they had given no target dates for achieving this.
Tax avoidance is a widespread problem among the companies rated in this guide. Half of them received our worst rating for likely use of tax avoidance strategies, which means they had more than two high-risk subsidiaries in tax havens. Most of the culprits were the big players (Philips, Toshiba, Sony) but high-street brands (Technika and Logik) were also in there. Sharp and LG were the only large electronics companies considered to be low risk for likely use of tax avoidance strategies.
The smaller TV companies come out best in our ratings table because they tend to avoid the gaze of campaign groups rather than because of any constructive policies. Avtex, Cello and Linsar all failed to produce any corporate social responsibility documentation, although Cello Electronics did state that its TVs are manufactured in the UK, while Linsar TVs are made in Turkey.
A similar situation prevails in relation to own-brand TVs: Dixons Carphone (Logik) and Tesco (Technika) give no information about the provenance of their devices. Only John Lewis TVs are in any way traceable, as they have been ‘created in collaboration’ with LG and hence the scores of LG and John Lewis have been combined on the table for the John Lewis brand of TVs.
Of the big companies, Sharp came out joint top with Sony. That it could do so with such poor scores speaks volumes about the state of the electronics industry and its collective efforts in the field of corporate social responsibility. In 2013, Sharp was mentioned in a SOMO report into migrant worker abuses at electronics factories in Malaysia. According to the report, migrant workers were frequently employed on a temporary basis, paid subsistence wages for long working hours and had sick days deducted from their salaries. Many workers’ passports were held by outsourcing agencies and were used as a tool to quash complaints about working conditions by threatening deportation.
Philips’ toxics reporting and supply chain management were above average and it was one of only three to receive Ethical Consumer’s ‘best’ rating for conflict minerals reporting. Philips was also the only company to specifically market an ‘eco’ TV, although it appears to be no longer available. The Eco Smart LED TV, which in 2012 won the European Imaging and Sound Association’s European Green TV award, included a solar rechargeable remote control, a zero-watt power switch and 100% recyclable packaging. On the flip side, Philips’ LCD screens are produced by TP Vision, which is a subsidiary of the state-owned Chinese Electronics Corporation.
Last year Toshiba’s chief executive and president, as well as seven other high-level executives, resigned after the company overstated its profits between 2008 and 2014. An inquiry by securities regulators last year found that the company began misreporting profits after the 2008 financial crash, when senior managers began imposing unrealistic performance targets.
According to the regulators’ report, employees further down the chain then attempted to meet these targets through “inappropriate accounting practices”. In 2014 Toshiba also spent over US$2 million lobbying on issues including the environment, energy and nuclear power. The company also made donations to over thirty US congressional candidates. Most of these were Republicans who received an average contribution of around $2,500, whereas Democratic candidates received $1,700 on average. On the plus side, Toshiba performed well on environmental and toxics reporting, and received a ‘best’ rating for its conflict minerals policy.
Another company in the spotlight last year was LG, whose subsidiary, LG Electronics, narrowly avoided a lawsuit after a worker in one of their supplier factories lost both hands while cutting metal for flat screen televisions. The factory initially offered the worker, Rosa Moreno, 50,000 pesos compensation (US$3,800), although she was eventually awarded about US$14,400 under Mexican labour law. LG Electronics only avoided prosecution after a judge ruled that the company had not been properly notified.9 This story comes as little surprise to Ethical Consumer, as our research found LG to have a poor policy for auditing and reporting within its supply chain.
John Lewis and Tesco
Unlike the other companies in this report, John Lewis and Tesco feature in several of our product guides, such as food, due to the range of products they sell. Because Ethical Consumer rates companies based on the activities of the whole group, John Lewis and Tesco are rated on issues such as palm oil, factory farming or timber, while other big electronics companies are not. For this reason, their Ethiscore may appear to be lower than other competitors in the market. Equally, if a company produces electrical products, even if it is just one brand and one product line, they will be expected to have relevant policies on toxic chemicals and conflict minerals. Neither Tesco nor John Lewis had such policies.
This lack of information from supermarkets and small companies is a cause for concern, given what we know about the use of conflict minerals in electronic equipment, workers’ rights abuses in the electronics industry and the huge environmental impact of producing, using and disposing of electronic devices. Ethical Consumer urges these companies to take responsibility for their activities within such a noxious industry and publish more information about how and where their products come into being.
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1 Mintel, Televisions, UK, November 2014